Swansea City setting up youth training base for stars of the future
TONY Pennock glances out over Swansea City’s youth training base-in-waiting and considers how many more like Ben Davies will graduate from this breeding ground.
“One like Ben every year would be ideal,” Swansea’s Academy manager says through a smile.
“That is asking a lot, and it’s got more difficult now we are in the Premier League.
“But what we have to try to do is keep supplementing the first-team squad.
“We want to make sure there is a pathway for local players to get into the senior side.”
Davies’s dramatic rise to prominence has been a joy to watch for the fans, who love to see a local lad coming through, and for Michael Laudrup, who has found a replacement for Neil Taylor on his doorstep.
In the youth department, meantime, there is the sense of pride which always comes when one of their graduates makes it to the top level.
“Seeing him play the other weekend against Chelsea, flying into Fernando Torres on the halfway line and then winning the header a few minutes later — that’s Ben Davies,” Pennock says.
“He played in the youth cup final for us in April at Airbus and a few months later he is playing week-in, week-out in the Premier League and also international football.
“When you see him now he is still in shock and so are his parents.
“But he is one of a number of lads who worked extremely hard as a youth-team player.
“He is an intelligent lad who took on board what was needed and did it.”
Davies, from Neath, joined Swansea aged ten. It was when injury struck a little further down the line that Pennock was most impressed by his character.
“It was the end of his first year as a youth-team player and he twisted his knee in a Saturday morning match against Bristol Rovers,” remembers Pennock.
“There was some bad cartilage damage, but the way he got through his rehab period through that summer — senior staff saw that he worked hard to get back to full fitness.
“You could see then what type of lad he was. It showed he has the determination you need.”
Pennock describes it as a “brilliant” feeling when a youth product makes it all the way to Swansea’s senior side.
It is one he and his ever-expanding coaching staff hope to experience more regularly in the coming years, for Swansea are putting plenty into their youth department.
The new Landore training ground, which should be up and running early next year, is just one aspect of the progress being made.
Every youth set-up in the country is now referred to as an academy after a restructure overseen by the Premier League which took place over the summer.
But there are different grades of academy — one at the top to four at the bottom — and Swansea are currently trying to prove they should be awarded category two status.
Auditors from the Premier League have been at the Liberty this week to rate Swansea, with marks awarded in various areas including facilities, staffing levels, coaching hours and productivity — the number of players who have made the first-team grade.
They will have needed all of five minutes to work out that Swansea’s old centre of excellence has undergone a major transformation in recent times.
“When I came in four years ago, we had two staff in the youth department,” Pennock explains.
“Last year we had eight staff, and there were four the year before that.
“Now we have 17 full-time staff plus four interns. There has been a lot of work going on in the past 12 months to get us to where we are today.”
The amount of time spent working with the kids has altered dramatically, too.
“Four years ago it was twice a week. Then we increased the hours but still we were only training twice a week.
“Now some squads are training five times a week — and we are still looking for more hours to work with the kids.
“But it comes down to the kids, the parents and the schools — it’s about whether they can come out of school.
“Some age groups come out of school for half a day a week, some come out twice a week to train with us. At a category one club, they educate the kids full-time on site from the age of 14 upwards.”
Swansea are one of only three Premier League sides not to have applied for category one status this time around — Queens Park Rangers and Wigan are the others — and there were 23 clubs in all who aimed for the top band.
It is understood six of them have not made it — a sign of how strict the auditors are.
Pennock hopes that one day Swansea will be able to join the youth elite, but for the moment making category two when the auditors’ verdict comes some time next month would be quite an achievement.
“It’s been stressful, but these are exciting times for the youth department,” he says.
“We are all working with the aim of keeping Swansea City in the Premier League, to play the football we play now and to have local boys in the team doing it.
“That’s why we all play the same from under-nines up, otherwise these kids will not have a chance of playing in the first team.
“We have seen already this year how much more difficult it has been — we have been on the end of some quite heavy scorelines.
“But we are playing against clubs who have been academies for a long, long time.
“As the years go by we will catch up — and we are doing so already. We are playing teams we started playing on a friendly basis three years ago and we were losing almost by double figures. Now we are turning some of those teams over.”
Results for the various teams of Swansea youngsters are one thing.
But the bottom line for Pennock’s staff is that they must produce players who are good enough for the first team’s manager to call on.
“The club are giving us a lot more financial backing, to put into the facilities and get more staff,” Pennock adds.
“As a department we know there has got to be a Ben Davies or a Joe Allen every couple of years as opposed to once in a blue moon.
“We can’t keep putting money into the department if there is nothing coming out the other end.
“We are all aware of that, and we know we will all be judged on that ultimately.”